The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler (1939) Vintage (1988) 231 pp
I’ve been looking forward to reading Raymond Chandler for a long long time — so long, in fact, that I almost forgot I was looking forward to reading him. Over a year ago I asked my wife to get me The Big Sleep for my birthday. The problem was that I also asked for a few other books, and they were the ones I chose to read first. By the time I’d finished them, other books fell into line . . . well, you’ve all been there. The shocking thing is that I almost didn’t finish reading it this time around. I picked it up and read the first twenty pages and enjoyed them quite a bit, but not enough to make other books less appealing. It lost out to some others again. Finally I said enough was enough and finished the bugger off. It was worth the toil.
Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler’s iconic private detective, is so entrenched in our culture that I was nervous about reading his first incarnation as it refined hardboiled fiction. What if the mimicry is better than the original? The cynicism and dryness were very familiar, but (as is often the case) the original still shines through, even if it is misogynist and anti-homosexual. From early in the novel, here’s a typical show of flippancy as Marlowe overstates metaphor and understates his cynicism:
Over the entrance doors, which would have let in a troop of Indian elephants, there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn’t have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair. The knight had pushed the vizor of his helmet back to be sociable, and he was fiddling with the knots on the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere. I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him. He didn’t seem to be really trying.
Marlowe has arrived at the mansion of millionaire General Sternwood. There are many visible problems at the mansion but the General wants Marlowe to chase after only one: Arthur Geiger has been blackmailing Carmen, one of the General’s two daughters. Marlowe says clear things up discreetly. On his way out, Marlowe runs into Vivian, the General’s other daughter. She assumes that the General asked Marlowe to investigate the disappearance of her husband, Terence Regan.
All of this built up to a nice and fairly straightforward story — at first, at least. In fact, things were working out so well for Marlowe that I began to get annoyed with the plot structure and figured the book was a classic merely because it was Chandler’s first book and our first introduction to Marlowe — surely the later books make up for the debt owed by the first. I have to say I was wrong though. Around the half-way point (and it wasn’t a struggle to get there, really) the book transforms, Marlowe’s cynicism becomes understandable. Marlowe has basically solved the case for General Sternwood, and he has no interest in the disappearance of Regan — so he says, anyway. However, by this point several people have died, and while Marlowe is no longer certain he wants to figure out why, he can’t help it, he’s enmeshed in the downfall.
Chandler’s ability with language shines through at this point too. Though Marlowe continues to narrate the story in his hard manner, he discloses the terror he feels. In fact, his hard manner almost makes the disclosures more intimate:
It was raining hard again. I walked into it with the heavy drops slapping my face. When one of them touched my tongue I knew that my mouth was open and the ache at the side of my jaws told me it was open wide and strained back, mimicking the rictus of death carved upon the face of Harry Jones.
It’s a great book because not only does the case start to fall apart but also the very structure of the book begins to contort and become uncertain and opaque. While some have criticized it for this, I found the technique fascinating (I’m assuming Chandler threw the plot away on purpose, though who can say? He was later shocked to discover, when questioned, that he didn’t know who killed one of the characters). When the the plot line no longer was ticking away predictably, when Marlowe’s character started evolving from the cynical professional to the shuddering man who knew too much — not about the case, but about life — I was wide awake.